Thursday, November 29, 2007

Cowardly presidential candidates?

About one week after the JRMC 8350 crew returned from our reporting trip to New Orleans, Times-Picayune reporter John Pope emailed to say that the committee charged with setting up president debates had rejected New Orleans as a site. Instead, they selected Oxford, Mississippi, which doesn't even have enough hotel rooms to accommodate the candidates, their entourages and the press corps.

Today an editorial in the New York Times took the debate committee to task, scoffing at the claim that "New Orleans did not measure up" as a debate site.

Those who've been to New Orleans recently find this implausible.

We were part of a convention with more than 20,000 physician participants and another 10,000 corporate reps and reporters. No one likes creature comforts more than doctors and drug company salespeople, and they looked pretty fat and happy.

New Orleans has worked hard to re-establish itself as a venue for major events, and for better or worse presidential debates draw smaller crowds than Mardi Gras parades or football games.

My guess is that candidates and their handlers are shunning New Orleans because they are too cowardly to face painful issues that a group of Grady students confronted in early November. Courage is needed to engage with people in ruined neighborhoods, contemplate the failures of political will and human decency that created this desolation, and resolve to do what we can to change this.

Surely anyone who aspires to the presidency should be willing to plead his or her case in New Orleans.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Holding back the tears

For two days, my graduate students and I toured New Orleans most devastated neighborhoods by van, stopping to pick our way through rubble and talk to survivors and volunteers struggling to rebuild. It took eight hours to see only part of the flood zone, which in total is seven times as large as Manhattan.

JRMC8350 aims to teach graduate students the essential skills of health and medical journalism, but it also requires them to probe connections between health and wealth in every article they write. In New Orleans, this exercise felt like a dental pick touching a nerve.

The trick is not to cry if you're the professor, busy demonstrating reporter-like behavior for people who'll be your colleagues for years to come.

It was late morning on the first day when we stopped in the Lower 9th Ward, where literally thousands of working class homes -- many in the same African American families for generations -- had been shoved from their foundations and crushed when the levees broke. The rubble had been hauled off and the irrepressible growth of Joe Pye weed and goldenrod and tall grass had masked the pilings, foundation slabs and cement steps that remained. If you didn't want to think about the losses suffered here, you could convince yourself that these were vacant lots like any other.

One lot, however, demanded our attention. It was neatly mowed to the property lines and shurbs were pruned. Little imagination was needed to envision a barking dog behind the chain link fence that still stood, shushed by an owner sitting on the porch. Now there was no porch, no house. Just concrete steps and a child's whirligig, motionless.

This was a raw wound dressed by lawnmower and lopping shears. Someone lacked the resources to heal the wound and rebuild the house, but could not walk away. At least one student wept at this mute testimony to grief and persistence.

But not the professor, who had roles to model.

We wrapped up our tour the following afternoon, talking with New Orleans Times-Picayune reporters and editors who shared the newspaper's Pulitzer Prize for its storm coverage. Veteran medical and public health reporter John Pope, who arranged the visit, asked the grad students to talk about the first-person piece each planned to write. "What's your story about?" he asked.

We went around the table, and when it was time for writing coach Kimberly Davis to speak, she said "For me, the story is about the people who aren't here." And then it hit me: huge swatches of New Orleans are as silent as the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. In Holy Cross and Lakeview and other parts of New Orleans where buildings still stand, there are streets without voices, barking dogs, TV chatter, or the ringing of phones.

The realization made tears inch down my cheeks, there in the third floor conference room at the Times-Pic. But I did not cry.

Later that afternoon, I did. I encountered a scrawny black man in a Navy watch cap on steps leading into Jackson Square, and as I brushed past he said "Can you help me? I just got out of the hospital and I need to get my medicine." He waved in front of me what looked to be a completed prescription form, white and yellow copies torn off a pad and still gummed together.

For all I know, he was panhandling with the same line long before Katrina hit. Or he might have been freshly discharged from the hospital. It was impossible to tell. But I was prepared to give the man the benefit of the doubt after all we'd seen, and so I gave him a bill that was probably larger than what he expected.

And I walked away, sat down on a bench, and bawled. We had all seen so much sadness in this proud and wounded city. And yet...and yet...we have seen people determined to stay on and endure, if not prevail.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Keep it simple

This is a melancholy week for people in my profession because former Wall Street Journal reporter Jerry Bishop, one of the greatest science writers ever, died last Friday at age 76. Tributes are mounting at, where Jerry's colleague Ron Winslow posted an elegant obituary of his friend and mentor.

Jerry understood the value of simplicity far better than most of us. Ron describes a session more than 20 years ago, where scientists were talking about defibrillators -- implantable devices that shock a quivering heart back into normal rhythm. "Several reporters in the audience asked technical questions about the device and then Jerry raised his hand. 'When the device fires that jolt,' he asked, 'what does it feel like?'"

That is what readers really want to know, and we must remember to ask.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Visiting New Orleans

One month from now, JRMC 8350 students will be walking the streets of New Orleans and encountering the persistent effects of Katrina and Rita firsthand. We'll be visiting hospitals and clinics and interviewing people who are committed to building a new health care system for this great American city, one that functions more equitably and lightens the burden of disease that has weighted down generations.

One way to prepare for what we'll see in New Orleans and vicinity is to view Spike Lee's Peabody-winning HBO documentary, "When the Levees Broke." Vision Video in Athens has mutiple copies at all their locations, and there are also copies in the Main Library at UGA. Another resource is "Health Challenges for the People of New Orleans," a new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation. There's a link to the Kaiser website on our blog's index page.

Even people who aren't heading for New Orleans might want to see Lee's documentary and read this report.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Drought and disease

If I'd known I was going to live so long, I would have taken better care of myself.

If I'd known we were going to run out of water by Christmas, I would have taken shorter showers and never, ever rinsed dishes under running water.

Today while I was doing what passes for gardening during these dry times -- pruning, removing dead plants, and adding soil amendments that will help if I ever get to plant anything new again -- I couldn't help but think about parallels between preventive care and water conservation.

When we're healthy and the reservoirs are full, we assume it will always be so.

Frightened by a heart attack or the threat of taps run dry, we vow to do better. But when the crisis is over, do we really stop eating fries or get that leaky tap fixed?

It isn't easy to change our ways, either individually or as a nation. You can find out more about how increased used of five simple, preventive health measures would save 100,000 American lives each year by going to That's where you'll find a new report, "Preventive Care: A National Profile on Use, Disparities and Health Benefits."

As for water use, shower with a friend.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Wednesday night TV

I met Adam Rogers when he was a science journalism grad student at Boston University, earning an MA in the program where I later taught. I never had him in class but he was my intern at the Harvard Health Letter for 6 months, and he did some wonderful reporting and writing there.

Now Adam is an editor at Wired Magazine in San Francisco, but more recently he's been working on a TV spinoff called "Wired Science." The season opener is at 8 PM Wednesday on PBS. For more info, see

The teaser indicates a pretty wide range of stories, so check it out if you can.

Local sources

Scout around for yesterday's Athens Banner Herald, sift through the ads for Target and Lowe's and you'll find a slick advertising supplement called "Fall 2007 Health Resource Guide." Hang onto it! The combination of directories and display advertising will help you identify local physicians, dentists, and health services --names you'll need to put a local angle on your stories. Nice revenue for ABH, nice tool for you!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sunday miscellany

Today's "@issue" section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution features an interview with epidemiologist Devra Davis, author of a new book called "The Secret History of the War on Cancer." She's been a lightning rod for controversy for as long as I can remember, and if this interview is any indication Davis is not surrendering this role anytime soon. Her new book apparently claims that some of the world's best-known cancer epidemiologists were essentially on the take, pocketing money from tobacco and asbestos interests while publishing studies that put more blame on genes than on these and other everyday exposures.

In her new book, Davis argues that the so-called "war on cancer" has spotlighted diagnostic tests and novel therapies while soft-pedaling big money carcinogens like tobacco. Although I think that tobacco is the single biggest modifiable risk factor for cancer, Davis once published studies shifting the blame away from tobacco and onto environmental pollutants. But hey, it's all about learning as you go.

Speaking of which, check out the website Although we don't dwell on this, JRMC 8350 is a community journalism course: students must find the local angle for every story. This website provides excellent gut checks that help us determine whether we're really approaching our town with an open mind, or instead recounting a plot we framed in advance.

One final note, sparked by Red & Black's story on killer microwave popcorn: any JRMC8350 student who posts an acceptable critical analysis of a health/medical story in R&B or the Athens Banner Herald picks up 5 extra pounts for the term. This analysis must use a checklist as rigorous as the one deployed by, and if the article is about a clinical trial using theirs is a fine idea.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Coach is in your corner

Writing Coach Kimberly Davis has covered cops and courts for a daily newspaper and profiled Kanye West and Ludacris for Ebony. She has written about health, religion, race and higher education, and dozens of other topics for national and regional magazines.

Kimberly graduated from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in 1996 and came to Grady College in 2006 with a decade of professional writing and editing experience. She has taught and done research while pursuing her MA, and without Kimberly Grady College probably would not have an exciting partnership with New America Media, the nation’s largest network of ethnic news organizations.

Here’s the best part: Kimberly is your writing coach. Her job this semester is to help you brainstorm story ideas, plan reporting strategies, coordinate with photographers, and revise your copy. She has regular office hours from 9-12 on Mondays and is also available by appointment. Whatever your dilemma, she can help you think it through.

How good is she? Let’s put it this way: she edits everything I write, and my work is better for it.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sunday papers and upcoming guests

The front page of today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution showcases the latest in a series of investigative pieces about mentally ill Georgians dying from lack of proper care. If anyone has forgotten that jails and prisons have become society's de facto mental health faciltiies, this is a vivid reminder. Reporter Andy Miller, co-author of the series, will guest lecture in JRMC 8350 on October 3.

The lead story in today's "Week in Review" section of the New York Times is called "Unveiling Health Care 2.0, Again." You'll want to read this -- and stay alert for ongoing coverage of health care plans put forth by presidential hopefuls -- so you'll be ready for November 28. That's the penultimate class meeting, when you get to grill four College of Public Health students about health care platforms of various candidates.

This coming Wednesday you'll have a chance to try out your long feature ideas twice in the same class meeting. Award-winning online editor Jim Alred will meet with us for the first half of class, and after the break we'll be joined by editors from newspapers and magazines in greater ATH. Be prepared to pitch!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Inspiration for the next steps

Now that all you 8350 students have met your first deadline, it's time to gear up for your multimedia adventure. If you haven't already done so, I hope you'll make contact with your photojournalism partners over the weekend. It's important that you work as a team to explore topics and find the story that will grow into your long feature, photographs, and audio-slide production.

To help you get started, check out the links at
These are finalists for the 2007 Online Journalism Awards and there's a lots of great stuff here. Scroll down and you'll find some excellent pieces done by students. "The Science of Sex," for example, is built from man (and woman) on the street interviews conducted in a park. The sound is natural, the people are real, this is proves that human interest does not have to be high-tech.

More audio-slide presentations recommended by photo and multimedia guru Mark Johnson: (We watched part of this in class.) (Just for fun.)

Happy hunting!

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

More jolt than Jittery Joe's

Admit it, you got quite an adrenaline rush when Dr. Dan Colley feigned sudden death while describing the worst consequences of Chagas disease. I know I did! Slides for his excellent presentation, "What reporters need to know about covering infectious disease," will soon be linked to the syllabus posted on the KnightHealth teaching page.

While you were busy launching your health/medical blogs over Labor Day weekend, I was catching up with back issues of The New Yorker. In the August 13 issue, Hot Zone author Richard Preston writes a gripping piece about Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, a genetic disorder that drives affected boys to bite off the tips of their own fingers (among other things). Check it out.

Everyone did well launching the blogs and I'm eager to see how these conversations develop during the coming months.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Week two in JRMC 8350

We got off to a great start last week with the talk by Dr. Claude Burnett, health director for Northeast Georgia. You can review his powerpoint slides here.

Although Dr. Burnett's lead topic was teen pregnancy, he gave a statistical overview of many health department programs and cautioned that falling revenues are making these difficult to sustain. There are dozens of story ideas embedded in this presentation.

Kimberly emailed you the readings for Wednesday, and when we meet we'll be joined by a new class member. Some of you already know Tabitha Lovell, who has a background in agricultural education and is now concentrating in PR as a Grady MA student.

Plans for our November 10-14 trip to New Orleans are moving ahead. You need to fill out some advance paperwork with Anettra Mapp, so please contact her: 706-542-8506

Over the weekend I read Terry McDermott's four-part LA Times series about neuroscientist Gary Lynch's quest to understand the physical correlates of memory. McDermott had me firmly in his narrative grip, despite including lots of complex science, until the protagonist of the story developed a mysterious neurologic ailment. This wasn't part of the story McDermott set out to write and it seemed to throw him for a loop. You're not required to read this series for the course, but if you're interested in narrative journalism you may want to check it out.

I'm looking forward to hearing about your ride-alongs with the ACC police and about your ideas for the first news story.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Welcome to health/med journalism!

Dear All,
I'm looking forward to seeing you in class next Wednesday morning, and before then I'll distribute the syllabus. Even without that weighty document you need to get started:

1) Please purchase a copy of News & Numbers (second edition), by Victor Cohn and Lewis Cope. This paperback is available at the UGA bookstore.
2) Read the journal article that writing coach Kimberly Davis sends you as a PDF. This prepares you for the August 22 guest lecture by Dr. Claude Burnett, health director for NE Georgia. Check the syllabus for additional readings.
3) Set up your individual "ride-along" with the Athens-Clarke County Police. This is a one-time deal, it's up to you to arrange, and you should be prepared to talk about it during class on August 29. Try and go at night. Pick up required forms from Anettra Mapp (room 252,, 542-8506) or Kimberly (room 256,, 542-8390).

Don't hesitate to contact Kimberly or me with questions.
--Knight Chair Patricia Thomas, who really does prefer to be called Pat.